The staggering amount of steelwork used in the Great Western railway electrification

I’m grateful to Andy Hyde who left this comment on our recent HS2 article by Peter Wrigley:

…One concern I have is the ability of these projects to rack up unnecessary costs in developing new ways of doing x, y or z, just because HS2 is new. The best example of this is the Great Western electrification (the great getting lesser as time progresses), as I understand it contractors were given a free hand to design the overhead electrical systems rather than use tried and tested existing technology, this has resulted in the staggering amount of gantry steelwork along the entire route, compared to any other similar system here or across Europe (just look at it!), causing a major cost overrun. Possibly leading to the cancellation of the Swansea/Valleys/Bath and Midland electrification schemes…

This is a view of which I was unaware but certainly rang true with my experience of living next door to the newly electrified line. As you can see from these photos (above and below) taken during my regular dog walk this morning, the sheer volume of metalwork is absolutely incredible. Every twenty yards there is another vast steel gantry – right along the line to Paddington from Newbury!

The payback period for this project must stretch to several millennia!

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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  • William Fowler 26th Aug '19 - 1:40pm

    This is down to the stupidity of allowing companies a reasonable return on capital, say five percent… sounds reasonable until you realise the more you spend the more hard cash in the form of profit you get (and also one reason why energy co’s are so keen to whack up prices). The steel companies were happy, anyway.

  • Peter Chambers 26th Aug '19 - 5:56pm

    A guaranteed five percent? That sounds like the old discredited Cost Plus scheme that was used in the seventies. Surely the DoT was not taken in by that old wheeze?

  • The massive amount of steel work is so 3 trains (class 387) coupled together can run at 110mph, and 2 trains (class 800) coupled together can run at up to 140mph. If the steel work was lighter the vibrations of 2/3 pantographs running in close proximity would likely bring down the overhead wires. It doesn’t fully explain why it’s needed in stations in and around stations though…


    Incidentally, HS2 should involve a lot less steel work because it’s designed from the ground up as a new railway with one type of train rather than being a multipurpose railway (freight, commuter, regional and intercity).

  • In a few years time you will be very grateful for all that steelwork if it avoids the “wires down” incidents that plague other electrified lines.

  • Charlotte Thompson 26th Aug '19 - 8:06pm

    Would be good if guys got your facts right. The gantries and masts were specified by Network Rail. Send in a Freedom of information request if you don’t believe me. Add to the fact the politicians wanted to start work before the designs were completed and immature civil servants (NR) client and that why it’s a mess. Look in the mirror before you blame the private sector!

  • Philip Granger 26th Aug '19 - 9:48pm

    To make assertions like this you must have some benchmark to measure by. I am an accountant. My observation is that SNCF use minimal steel in their structures, and TML.
    How do they compare? You cannot get much steel into the Severn Tunnel with little headroom.

  • There are alot of reasons for different types of steel work, those types that are posted are known as portals and good for areas of major junction and point work, where lateral and vertical tensions especially are high. No the company did not have a hand in the design as such that is down to network rail and they changed the design several times. Also we have not done major electrification for decades so we have lost all knowledge of how to do them

  • The rest of Europe has railway lines supporting TGVs which can and often do travel at over 300kph. Maybe we should ask them to help us. Possibly with EU funding. Oh hang on…
    In the 1960’s both Britain and France were experimenting with high speed trains (400kph, 250mph), including Prof. Laithwaite’s experimental tracked hovercraft powered by linear electric motor, with an experimental track here in the Cambridgeshire fens. He also looked into magnetic levitation (Maglev), which looked more promising as the hover technology had problems at high speeds.
    A lot was learned in the trials, mostly that it was harder to do than had been expected. In 1973, Hesletine cancelled the program. The French program was eventually cancelled too.
    British Rail developed the 125mph APT (which could run on existing tracks); France developed the TGV, which normally operates at twice that speed (250mph), but can go much faster. The TGV is now in use across Europe, and on some other networks too.

  • Remember what British Railways achieved in 1991 : E.C.M.L. electrification completed on time and to the budgeted cost , which was itself pared back below what it ideally should have been by a then niggardly attitude towards railway investment at Her Majesty’s Treasury .
    A continuity of those professional engineers who achieved this has been lost . They should have been kept together and moved on to do further electrifications , not fragmented by the process of an unnecessarily complicated and disparate privatisation which began on 1 st of April 1994 . Hence we are now paying a too high a price for any further investment . G. W. R. electrification is just another example of costs going beyond anything we would expect . Put simply the method of privatisation chosen by some exceedingly clever civil servants and accepted by Parliament has proved to be an expensive mistake .

  • John Marriott 27th Aug '19 - 8:36am

    Steel might be a problem; but, what about all the extra electricity we are going to need in future? As we are told we have to switch to electric cars, buses, vans and lorries as well, of course, to fully electric trains, can we really produce enough power to keep us going? We’ve already had a couple of power outages. Could we be in for more?

    Then there are all the precious metals we need for batteries etc. No wonder Trump is interested in acquiring Greenland and the Chinese are leasing swaths of Africa for mining rights. The extra production of steel might be the least of our problems!

  • @John Marriott – No need to worry, we’ve buying electricity from continental Europe and paying continental Europe to allow the transshipment of Russian (and other) gas and oil. Also, I’m sure as part of Trump’s deal, he will allow US companies to build new nuclear power plants in the UK – obviously to US designs which the manufacturers have self certified to be safe (as per the Boeing 737 Max) – what can possibly go wrong! 🙂

    Re: railway gantries: It amuses me how people fixate on the visible; under each of those gantries is a rather large pile of reinforced concrete, which as we know is a big greenhouse gas contributor. HS2 may use less visible steel, but to support the headline speeds, the trackbed will incorporate significantly more concrete in its construction…

    As for the precious metals, well currently worldwide supply and known reserves of the key metals used in batteries and in high efficiency and power electric motors are wholly insufficient to meet the anticipated demand, given (worldwide) government electric vehicle targets. Interestingly, because demand hasn’t taken off, but companies have been gearing up for some years (hence why we have such good knowledge of the whereabouts and size of reserves compared to rare earth metals in general) prices are low as supply outstrips demand. One of the other concerning aspects, is that some of the new compound materials – using these rare metals – are as yet not recyclable, being fit only for landfill…

  • Ian Hurdley 27th Aug '19 - 9:35am

    @ John Marriott I read very recently a suggestion that the line could be substantially powered by trackside solar arrays in cuttings and other stretches of track where there is ample space to accommodate them. How practical this would be and what proportion of the necessary power could be generated in this way, I don’t know, but it seems feasible to this non-engineer.

  • Andrew Hyde 27th Aug '19 - 9:46am

    Charlotte, thanks for the FOI information, my words were based on comments from NR engineers.
    The close proximity of pantographs was a problem when the Pendolinos were first introduced on the WCML, solved by only using one pantograph. Not sure the GW units can do that.
    We have electrified main lines (fairly) recently for high speed running, namely HS1, with the lighter structures than used on the GW project.
    Agree with Gwyn’s comment on wires coming down.
    All said, if HS2 goes ahead, the lessons from earlier projects need to be remembered.

  • The ECML may have been completed on time and budget but the spacing of the stanchions was the absolute maximum. The result is speed restrictions on windy days and, increasingly frequently, lines being brought down by trains (what is it about the Retford/Newark area?).
    Steel is relatively cheap (it probably costs more to fit it than to buy it) and it’s better to spend the money at the beginning to be constantly repairing it later (the classical CapEx v OpEx dilemma).

  • Talking about costs and the environmental impact of railways, has Liberal Democrat policy as outlined in April, 2015 by the then Liberal Democrat General Election Campaign Spokesman Lord Scriven, changed ?

    Lord Scriven said: “There’s only one party you can trust to make sure HS2 comes to our great Northern cities and that’s the Liberal Democrats.”

    Is that still the case or will the party take note of the recent announcement of budget overshooting (I believe £ 30 billion to date) ? Will the policy be reviewed after the Enquiry due to report by the end of the year announces its findings ?

  • John Marriott 27th Aug '19 - 12:15pm

    @Ian Hurdley
    I’m also a ‘non-engineer’; in fact, if truth be known, I’m a ‘non-most things’! I seem to recall that they were planning to convert some diesel electric railway stock to hydrogen fuel cell propulsion. Personally, I reckon that this form of electricity generation has been massively overlooked in valour of battery power. It could have a great future if handled properly. However, what did worry me was the proposal to put the hydrogen storage tanks on the carriage roofs. The fate of the airship, ‘Hindenburg’ in Lakehurst NJ in the 1930s came to mind, knowing the potential for volatility that Hydrogen has. After all, don’t they make bombs with it?

  • @John Marriott – However, what did worry me was the proposal to put the hydrogen storage tanks on the carriage roofs.
    Best place for it given hydrogen burns upwards, I’d be worried if the tanks were under the carriage floors.

  • Laurence Cox 28th Aug '19 - 12:07pm

    @David Wright

    If you are going to pontificate on rail travel at least get your facts right:

    British Rail developed the 125mph APT (which could run on existing tracks); France developed the TGV, which normally operates at twice that speed (250mph), but can go much faster.

    The APT prototype achieved a speed of 152.3 mph on 10th August 1975 and the Service prototype 162.2 mph in December 1979. See:

    You are confusing it with the High Speed train of the same era which was badged as the Inter-City 125, but actually achieved 143.2 mph on one test run on 12th June 1973.

    The High Speed train was designed to run on the Great Western and ECML which were much straighter than the WCML and so did not need the tilting coaches that were a feature of the APT.

    Although a heavily modified TGV has set the world speed record of 357.2 mph on a test run on 3rd April 2007, its standard schedule speed is 200 mph, not 250 mph. See:

    There are issues with raising the scheduled speed of the TGV closer to the test run speed, most notably Rayleigh waves (these are surface acoustic waves) which require the trackbed to be stiffened. Essentially, we are talking about a trackbed of something more like reinforced concrete rather than the ballast used for speeds of up to 200 mph. This is also an issue for HS2 which has a 250 mph design speed; had the design been restricted to 200 mph originally then more tried and tested railway engineering techniques could have been used.

  • Peter Martin 28th Aug '19 - 1:00pm

    @ Laurence Cox @David Wright,

    The speeds mentioned are maximum speeds and don’t affect the travelling time as much as might be expected. Especially as we will probably see airport type security measures at rail stations with a requirement to check-in an hour, or whatever, before the departure time.

    So how much time will actually be cut from an Inter City journey between Manchester and London? I’d be surprised if it was much more that 15 minutes off the present time of 2hrs 10mins ! Times could be even longer if check in time is included.

    We won’t get much change from £100 billion. Is it really worth it? We’d be better spending a tenth of that amount getting the best we can from our existing network.

  • Laurence Cox 28th Aug '19 - 5:45pm

    @Peter Martin

    The check-in time for Eurostar is only 30 minutes and if you are travelling business class, I believe it can be as low as 10 minutes (I haven’t done this, but it is based on the time needed to get people through passport control and luggage scanning). On the Continent, unless you are travelling to the UK, you can get straight on to the platforms of all the high-speed rail stations. In France, you have to have a seat reservation to travel on the TGV so there isn’t any need for check-in lounges and I cannot see them introducing them. I don’t see why we need to either; we don’t treat rail travel like air travel.

  • Good pictures. The cost overrun on the Great Western Electrification Project (GWEP) is not due to the steelwork which was always part of the specification. Although criticised for being “over-engineered” (or to be correct ‘over-specified’) the use of portals (rigid gantries across the track) rather than headspans (tensioned steel wires) is intended to reduce lifetime cost and improve reliability. The Great Western Main Line is the first major electrification project since the East Coast Main Line back in the late 1980’s / early 1990s. The ECML was done on the cheap with long runs between supports and extensive use of headspans. Consequently, the ECML has a poor record for reliability with frequent dewirements…

    ‘East Coast Main Line suffers yet another massive failure’ [February 2013]:

    Line blocked for two days in the St. Neots area with a kilometre of overhead wires damaged.

    ‘Rail fault causes severe travel disruption on LNER trains’ [April 2019]:

    Train services on a major route were disrupted when 10 electric locomotives were damaged by faulty electric cables.

    Dewirements are hugely disruptive and typically cost £millions, not least in penalty payments. The use of headspans also means that a dewirement on one track usually affects all tracks. Complex work is required to reinstate, align and correctly tension the overhead. By contrast, a portal mounted system is mechanically independent from track to track. The ECML electrification is a classic case of ‘buy cheap, pay twice (cf Toddbrook Reservoir auxiliary spillway). A lot of money has been spent on remedial improvements by, for example, retrofitting bespoke portals between masts. Here’s a photo showing a headspan across four-tracks and (behind that) a newly retrofitted portal:

    ‘Old next to new portal conversion at Connington, Cambridgeshire.’:

    This sort of remedial work is expensive and not nearly as good as purpose designed portals on solid foundations. So, learning from past mistakes, Network Rail now specify to a higher standard. The new NR Series 1 OLE has also been designed to reduce costs and eliminate previous failure modes.

  • Alex Macfie 30th Aug '19 - 8:11am

    @Laurence Cox, @Peter Martin: Some train services in France (other than Eurostar) do require check-in. These are the Ouigo services. Ouigo is a rather contrived RyanRail-type service that incorporates some of the horrors of low-cost air travel, such as baggage charges and, yes, check-in. Mark Smith (The Man in seat 61) has disparagingly called it a “train service for air travellers”. It’s still run by SNCF, using TGV sets but cheaper than standard TGV services. Frankly, I think SNCF would do much better by improving the sparse service on its classic lines to provide a slower but cheaper service, than wasting time on that sort of hare-brained concept. As Laurence rightly points out, “we don’t treat rail travel like air travel”, or at least we shouldn’t.
    The integrated-reservation ticketing model used by SNCF for TGV services is probably a requirement if we wanted to introduce check-in. Spain has baggage checking for most fast trains (a knee-jerk reaction to a terrorist attack in 2004), and also has integrated-reservation ticketing for them. By this, I mean not just that you have to reserve a seat on a train, but that every ticket is intrinsically tied to a seat reservation on a particular train, and has to be exchanged if one wants to travel on a different train, even if it’s an open ticket. This is similar to how airline tickets work.
    In the UK (also Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, among other countries) you can just walk up, buy a ticket and hop onto any train. Some faster trains, e.g. HS1 in UK and IC/ICE/EC in Germany, are more expensive than normal trains, but still do not require reservations. This non-reservation ticketing model is fundamentally incompatible with requirement for check-in, and there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that the UK is going to move to the French and Spanish (and Italian) integrated-reservation model even for HS2 (and I certainly hope we don’t), although train tickets that include HS2 may be more expensive than those that don’t, like with HS1 and in the German model.

  • David Wright 26th Aug ’19 – 11:48pm:
    The rest of Europe has railway lines supporting TGVs which can and often do travel at over 300kph. Maybe we should ask them to help us.

    HS1 (CTRL) is rated up to 300kph. There’s a big difference between constructing a completely new line where the electrification mounts and track can be on the same foundation to adding electrification to an 180 year old railway, laid over poor ground conditions with many low bridges and other obstacles, whilst it’s in continuous use.

    The main contract for the Great Western was won by Amey PLC and the OLE is being supplied by Furrer+Frey AG…

    ‘Series 1 – simple and easy to build’:

    Series 1 is the new overhead line equipment range for routes above 110mph to be electrified. It is being implemented on the Great Western Route.

    The most efficient builders of High Speed railways are the Chinese, who have developed some impressive construction kit for the purpose…

    Chinese Bridge Maker Machine:

  • As an Assistant OLE Engineer currently trying to their BEng project dissertation on.. well OLE, I’ve stumbled on to this post, and am currently struggling to find inspiration to work, hence my comment.

    The OLE system you see here is Series 1, which is comprised primarily on the Great Western railway has been designed in such a way by Furrer + Frey to allow for easy construction, make for very easy maintenance (Mk3b, or East Coast Main Line Headspans I’m looking at you) and overall structural integrity, as utilising 203x203UC structural masts are cheap but can be subject to various factors such as lean in their service life, eventually leading to renewals which is costly. Additionally, since the masts are square hollow sections they in all fairness probably use almost the same amount of steel as a bigger UC mast.
    The reason for very high costs is not down to design houses alone, yes some have milked it but others like my recent old company helped deliver a whole part of a route section relatively quickly and efficiently. The process which Network Rail go through sometimes makes things very expensive.

    Unfortunately electrification and battery powered is the way forward for train travel – hydrogen trains defeat the object as although they use hydrogen fuel cells, they are heavier than electric trains and will then therefore cause more maintenance costs on the P-way (tracks).

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